This week, Americans will prepare to celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. Many will take the time to think seriously about those things for which they give thanks, and most will celebrate with friends and family. This week, Jews read the Torah portion Vayetze, in which our patriarch Jacob does a little soul searching as well. First, he has a sleeping vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder with God stationed at its top. God speaks to Jacob and promises him that his progeny shall inherit the land in all directions from where he now sleeps. God also assures Jacob וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ, וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-תֵּלֵךְ “I am with you and I will protect you in any place that you go” (Genesis 28:15). When Jacob awakens, his first words are, אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know” (Genesis 28:16). The result of Jacob’s soul-searching is a new-found consciousness of the Divine Presence. According to Rabbi Jonathan Blake, “The place itself hadn’t changed, but Jacob had. He discovered that inspiration and blessing can come to us in any place if we but harness the vision.”
I recently had an experience of such awakening and thanks as a second grade teacher at Rockwern Academy, where I serve as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow. One Friday afternoon, the second grade class was about to celebrate Shabbat with the customary candles, challah, and grape juice. This is a special time of the week, when the children take the time to recognize the holiness in their lives and give thanks. As is wont to happen when twenty-one second-graders are crowded around a small table, one child accidentally bumped into another and spilled his grape juice. Immediately the child began to cry over the spilled grape juice, lamenting both the fact that he lost his sweet treat and that he had been jostled and embarrassed. The child who had bumped him apologized profusely, and his friends immediately gathered around him and reassured him that it was OK, saying, “Everyone spills sometimes!”
Then, the children chose to selflessly give what they had in order to cheer their classmate up. In this case, what they had was grape juice. As I watched, they each carefully poured a few drops into his cup so that he had the same amount as everyone else and could make Kiddush and celebrate Shabbat. I was particularly surprised, as I had seen the same group of children fight over who got the fullest cup of juice only minutes before. Yet, in this moment, the children realized the important thing was not who had the most juice, but how could we include everybody in this special time of the week.
At this moment, I felt a bit like Jacob awakening from his disorienting dream. I was so moved by the kindness that the children had shown their friend that I sensed that God must have been in that room with us, inspiring the children to be their best selves—kind, sympathetic providers, just like God.
As we are about to celebrate the American Thanksgiving, may we also find plenty of opportunities to share what we have and what we are grateful for with others. And may we all be blessed with moments of awareness in which we, like Jacob, can realize “Surely God is present in this place.”